Pope Francis celebrated Christmas Eve mass before an estimated 1,500 people in St. Peter's Basilica on Friday, going ahead with the service despite a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in Italy, which has prompted a new vaccine mandate for Vatican employees.
A maskless Francis proceeded down the central aisle of the basilica as the Sistine Chapel choir sang , kicking off the Christmas holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Participation in the event was once again restricted by COVID-19, so that the congregation was only about a fifth of the size of what it was in pre-pandemic years.
Francis — whose homily centred around the theme that Jesus was born with nothing — said people who are indifferent to the poor offend God, and he urged all to "look beyond all the lights and decorations" and remember the neediest.
"Brothers and sisters, standing before the crib, we contemplate what is central, beyond all the lights and decorations, which are beautiful. We contemplate the child," he said.
The importance of serving others
Francis, who turned 85 last week, said the baby Jesus born in poverty should remind people that serving others is more important than seeking status or spending a lifetime in pursuit of success.
"It is in them [the poor] that he wants to be honoured," said Francis, who has made defence of the poor a cornerstone of his pontificate.
"On this night of love, may we have only one fear: that of offending God's love, hurting him by despising the poor with our indifference. Jesus loves them dearly, and one day they will welcome us to heaven," he said.
Saying that working people — the shepherds — were the first to see the baby Jesus, Francis said labour had to have dignity, and he lamented that many people die in workplace accidents around the world.
"On the day of life, let us repeat: No more deaths in the workplace! And let us commit ourselves to ensuring this," he said.
The United Nations International Labour Organisation estimates that there are more than a million work-related fatalities every year.
COVID-19 cases rising again in Italy
The midnight mass actually began at 7:30 p.m. local time, a nod to the Pope's endurance and a holdover from last year, when the service had to end before Italy's nationwide COVID-19 curfew.
No curfew is in place this year, but cases this week have surged beyond 2020 levels. For the second day in a row, Italy on Friday set a new pandemic daily record, with 50,599 new cases. Another 141 people died, bringing Italy's official death toll to 136,386.
The Vatican secretary of state on Thursday imposed a new vaccine mandate on all Vatican staff, extending it to all employees except those who have recovered from the coronavirus.
Previously, only employees who dealt with the public directly had to be vaccinated, such as staff at the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guards, while others could access their offices with regular testing.
The mandate does not apply to the faithful attending mass, but they were required to wear masks.
Francis has said vaccination is an "act of love," and he has called for wealthier countries to provide the shots to the developing world.
With files from Reuters
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